The Korean War began while I was imprisoned in Heungnam. Within three days, the South Korean military handed over the capital Seoul and was forced to retreat to the south. Then, 16 nations, with the United States in the lead, formed a United Nations Force and intervened in the Korean War. U.S. forces landed in Incheon, and pushed toward Wonsan, which was a major industrial city for North Korea.
It was only natural for the Heungnam Prison to be a target for U.S. aerial bombing operations. When the bombing began, the prison guards would leave the prisoners to ourselves and go into the bomb shelters. They weren't concerned whether we lived or died. One day, Jesus appeared right before me with a tearful face. This gave me a strong premonition, and so I shouted, "Everyone stay within 12 meters of me!" Soon after that, a one-ton bomb exploded just 12 meters from where I stood. The prisoners who had stayed closed to me survived.
As the bombing became more intense, guards began executing the prisoners. They would call out the numbers of prisoners and tell them to come with three days' food rations and a shovel. The prisoners assumed they were being moved to another prison, but they never returned. They were marched into the mountains, made to dig a hole, and then buried there. Prisoners were being called out in the order of the length of our sentences, with those with the longest sentences being called first. I realized that my turn would come the next day.
That night, the bombs fell like rain during the monsoon season. It was October 13,1950, and the U.S. forces, having succeeded in the Incheon landing, had come up the peninsula to take Pyongyang and were now pressing against Heungnam. The U.S. attacked Heungnam with full force that night, with B-29 bombers in the lead. The bombing was so intense that it seemed all of Heungnam had been turned into a sea of fire. The high walls around the prison began to fall, and the guards ran for their lives. Finally the gate of the prison that had kept us in that place opened. At around two o'clock in the morning on the next day, I calmly walked out of Heungnam Prison with dignity.
I had been imprisoned for two years and eight months, so I was a terrible sight. My underwear and outwear were all in tatters. Dressed in those rags, I went with the group of people who had been following me in prison to Pyongyang, but not my hometown. Some of them, also, elected to come with me instead of going out in search of their wives and children. I could clearly imagine how my mother must be crying everyday out of concern for my welfare, but it was more important that I look after the members of my congregation in Pyongyang.
On the way to Pyongyang, we could see clearly how North Korea had been preparing for this war. Major cities were all connected by two-lane roads that could be used for military purposes in an emergency. Many of the bridges had been constructed with enough cement to let them withstand the weight of tanks weighing 30 tons. The fertilizer that the prisoners in Heungnam Prison had risked our lives to put into bags had been sent to Russia in exchange for out-dated weaponry that was then deployed along the 38th parallel.
As soon as i arrived in Pyongyang, i went in search of each of the members who had been with me before my incarceration. i needed to find out where they were and what their situation was. They had been scattered by the war, but I felt responsible to find them and help them figure out a way to carry on their lives. i didn't know where they might be living, so my only option was to search the city of Pyongyang from one corner to the other.
After a week of searching, i had found only three or four people. i had saved some powdered rice that i received while still in prison, so i mixed it with water to make rice cake and shared this with them. On the trip from Heungnam, I had staved off my hunger with one or two potatoes that were frozen solid. I had not touched the rice powder. It made me feel full just to watch them eagerly eat the rice cake.
I stayed in Pyongyang for 40 days looking for anyone I could think of, whether they be young or old. In the end, I never did find out what happened to some to those people. Even they, though, were never erased from my heart. On the night of December 2,1 began walking toward the South. Church members that included Won Pil Kim and I followed behind a large group of refugees by about 12 km.
We even took with us a member who could not walk properly. He had been among those who followed me in Heungnam Prison, and his family name was Pak. He had been released before me. When I found him in
his home, all the other members of his family had left for the South. He was alone In the house, with a broken leg. I placed him on a bicycle and took him with me. The North Korean army had already recaptured the flat roads for military use, so we traveled across frozen rice paddies as we made our way south as quickly as we could. The Chinese army was not far behind us, but it was difficult to move quickly when we had someone with us who could not walk. Half the time, the road was so bad that I carried him on my back and someone else pushed the empty bicycle along. He kept saying he didn't want to be a burden to me and tried several times to take his own life. I would convince him to go on, sometimes scolding him loudly, and we stayed together until the end.
We were refugees on the run, but we still had to eat. We would go into homes whose inhabitants had headed south before us, and search for any rice or other food that might have been left behind. We boiled anything we found, whether it was rice, barley or potatoes. We were barely able to stay alive this way. There were no rice bowls, and we had to use pieces of wood as chopsticks, but the food tasted good. The Bible says, "Blessed are the poor," doesn't it? We could eat anything that made our stomachs growl with satisfaction. Even a humble piece of barley cake tasted so good that we would not have felt jealous of a king's meal. No matter how hungry I might be, I always made sure to stop eating before the others. This way, they could eat a little more themselves.
After walking a long distance, we were approaching the northern bank of the Imjin River. Somehow, I felt it was important that we cross the river quickly, and that we didn't have a moment to spare. I felt strongly that we had to get over this obstacle in order for us to find a way to carry on our lives. I pushed Won Pil Kim mercilessly. Kim was young, and he would fall asleep as we walked, but I kept forcing him on and pulling the bicycle. We covered 32 km that night, and reached the bank of the Imjin River. Fortunately, the river was frozen solid. We followed some refugees in front of us across the river. A long line of refugees stretched out behind us. As soon as we had crossed the river, however, the U.N. Forces closed the crossing and stopped letting people across. Had we arrived at the river even a few minutes later, we would not have been able to cross.
After we had crossed, Won Pil Kim looked back at the road we had come, and asked, "How did you know that the river crossing was about to be closed?"
"Of course I knew it," I said. "This kind of thing happens often to anyone who takes the path of Heaven. People often don't know that salvation is just beyond the next obstacle. We didn't have a single moment to waste, and if necessary I would have grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and pulled you across."
Kim seemed moved by my words, but my heart was uneasy. When we arrived at the point where the 38th parallel divided the peninsula in two, I placed one foot in South Korea and one foot in North Korea and began to pray.
"For now, we are pushed southward like this, but soon I will return to the North. I will gather the forces of the free world behind me to liberate North Korea and unite North and South."
This was how I prayed during the entire time we walked along with the refugees.